‘The House on Via Gemito’ is a vivid drama by Domenico Starnone, who many Italians believe is the writer behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante
The story in Italian writer Domenico Starnone’s novel “The House on Via Gemito” is told by the son, who yearns for his father to achieve success and celebrity so that he can stop carping about his menial day job, the miserable conditions in which he has to paint and the envious rivals who stand in his way. At the same time, the son is embarrassed by the father’s boasting, irked by his invasiveness and disturbed by his reduction of every sphere of life to a competition that he must win. Most of all he is disgusted by his father’s treatment of his mother.
The novel has clear autobiographical roots. Starnone’s father is, or was, the painter Federico Starnone, whose masterpiece “The Drinkers” graces the cover of this book. Another Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg, once commented that her classic “Family Sayings” was “all fact. And yet … a novel, because it lacks the objectivity of documentary.” It’s clear that even if Starnone’s novel is not all facts, it is the story, or stories, his father told and hence the mental space he grew up in.
Domenico Starnone is now 80. Before now just three of his many novels — “Ties,” “Trick” and “Trust” — had appeared in English. All three are fairly short, carefully engineered stories in which the visceral emotions of difficult love affairs, family struggles and frustrated ambitions are held at ironic distance in measured prose and concise, assured structure. “The House on Via Gemito” is quite different: It is 450 pages of vivid, fluid, richly detailed drama, tormented and hilarious. Originally published in 2000, two years after his father’s death and more than a decade before the other translated novels, it shows us the crucible in which the author’s later style was formed: Coolness and control are defense mechanisms learned in the long struggle with his father.
In “Via Gemito,” Federico claims he was born on Jan. 17, 1917, in one of the poorest slums of Naples, his mother’s face illuminated by the glow of bonfires burning in honor of St. Anthony. The repetition of the magical number 17 occurring in coincidence with the saint’s day marked him out, he believes, for a “great destiny.” But his ID indicates he was born on Jan. 23. He claims he learned to box with European champion Bruno Frattini, who saw him hitting hard in a street fight. Although the details change suspiciously with every telling, these stories “frightened” the young Domenico: His father, he worries, “seemed to derive enormous pleasure from his ferocity.”
Via Vincenzo Gemito is a main thoroughfare in a residential district of Naples. You can visit it on Google Street View and see No. 64, where the Starnones lived. In Italian, “gemito” means moan, or wail, and the family’s second-floor apartment in the novel is a place of distress. When the father returns from his railway job, “like a warrior home from battle,” and sits down to paint, “his presence, whether awake or asleep, erases all notion of play.” When he’s away, the young Domenico, or Mimí, as he’s called, invents a game in which he and his younger brother are overwhelmed by “monstrous forces” in a battle they cannot win. Winning is the prerogative of their father. “I tried to behave meekly,” Mimí remembers, “and declined all forms of competition to avoid his boastful ways.” Despite this, he can’t avoid the fact that his character is forming entirely in relation to his father. “What meaning did I have without him?” he wonders.
Following only the vaguest chronological drift, the novel is divided into three sections. The first, “The Peacock,” opens with the father’s claim, later in life, that in 23 years of marriage, he hit his wife only once. Mimí thinks otherwise and begins a vast exercise in fact-checking. Federico’s early working life as a railway man and painter is recovered: his wartime marriage to the wry and beautiful Rusinè; his possessiveness and machismo; his supposed service on the Russian front; his endless scams and exploits; his vitality and charisma. “He filled my head with his words and thoughts,” Mimí remembers. “I have none of my mother’s.”
Naples emerges as a place of perpetual conflict: the Nazi occupation, the Allied occupation, street brawls, feuds, fights with other railway men. The younger Federico we see is relentlessly hostile toward Rusinè’s family: all louts, opportunists, pilferers. Art too is a struggle: to win a prize, get a place in a show or earn a mention in the newspaper. An art exhibition “wasn’t fun; it was war.” And marrying has stymied his career.
One evening, during a violent family argument, Mimí is sent to the parental bedroom to fetch cigarettes. Closing his mind to the yells behind him, the 5-year-old sees, between dresser and window, a majestic peacock, its open fan “reaching to the ceiling … painting the room as many colors as my father left on his palette.” Anguished denial has produced hallucinatory beauty.
In the second section — “The Boy Pouring Water” — the mature author intrudes directly into the narrative, describing visits to the places he is writing about: the poor district where Federico was born, the theater where he painted stage sets during the Allied occupation, Via Gemito itself. We have the first hints of coolness and distance, as if this act of showing how the book is being written makes it more possible to control its painful material. The shift meshes well with the main scene evoked in this section: For hours, the 10-year-old Mimí sits, or rather kneels, for his father, modeling the figure who holds the water jug in “The Drinkers.”
Relatives and acquaintances are called to sit for other figures in the painting. Federico rages when they can’t stay still. Mimí, his knee sore from contact with the hard floor, is “willing to die” under his father’s gaze, “just to help him become the artist he wants.” Our feelings for Federico shift. While painting, he tells Mimí about his own childhood: the hostility of his father, who kicked him out of the family as a child and later gambled away his first wages, determined to crush a son who wanted to be “better” than himself.
Meanwhile, on the canvas, chaos becomes form as heterogeneous household items, old book illustrations and the models themselves are brought together in triumphant composition. The boy is learning what it is to make art. He realizes it makes his father happy: “Could it be that he was playing the same way that we kids did?” Entirely focused on his painting, Federico fails to notice that his wife is falling chronically ill.
The father-son struggle reaches its climax in the third section, “The Dancer.” Ever more devout as her health declines, Rusinè forces Mimí to take his first Communion wearing the brown tunic and sandals of a saint. He will look ridiculous. The embarrassing ordeal convinces him that God doesn’t exist. Afterward there will be a party and dancing. In his teens now, Mimí is infatuated with a raven-haired girl, overwhelmed by “a tempestuous rush of blood … fantasies of pleasure.” She pays him no attention. Meanwhile the boy’s father talks obsessively of sex. His own sexual prowess, that is. His son must live up to the family’s reputation for virility: “Mimí, you don’t have to ask girls for their permission, you just have to grab them.” The boy carries a penknife in his pocket, ready to stab his father to death.
The novel gains with length. As drama and detail accumulate, we share the boy’s difficulty in finding a steady position vis-à-vis his father. Federico is the soul of every party, much loved, much hated, self-obsessed, hugely talented. Finally realizing that his wife is dying, he sketches her with pitiless accuracy, face puffy, gaze empty.
Starnone’s prose, ably and fluently translated by Oonagh Stransky, is compelling without being showy. He nails down his father in what could seem a tremendous act of revenge but is also a moving celebration of the man’s achievement and a profound consideration of artistic vocation. A final anecdote, recalling Federico and Rusinè in a playful tussle when the author was a child, is of such sublime ambiguity we wonder if we have understood anything at all about their marriage.
Outside the text, another mystery contrives to make “The House on Via Gemito” intriguing. “Troubling Love,” published in 1992, six years before Federico Starnone’s death, was the first novel to appear under the name Elena Ferrante. It tells the story of a mother who is treated appallingly by a jealous artist husband with delusions of grandeur. Again, the setting is Naples, and although this time the narrator is the mother’s daughter, not her son, any number of details anticipate those in Starnone’s autobiographical novel; this together with similarities of plot and phrasing in other novels has convinced many Italians that Starnone must be the writer behind the pseudonym Ferrante. Despite the different emotional tones of the novels, computer analyses of style and syntax appear to confirm the suspicion.
Certainly, reading “Via Gemito,” one can imagine how, in ashamed reaction to his father’s lewdness, Starnone might have wanted to write from a woman’s point of view or been eager to get this material into print without waiting for his father’s death. Or it could be that, like his father, he simply wanted “to prove that he could do whatever he put his mind to.”
Tim Parks is the author of many novels, translations and works of nonfiction. His latest novel is “Hotel Milano.”
By Domenico Starnone. Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky.